Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Not much left to say

Sorry this post is late. I've become increasingly sick all week (I think I might be getting Strep) and I could barely get out of bed until now. But anyway.

I don't really think there is much left to say in this debate. I am inclined to agree with Shep and Jon about the importance of Hamas to a realist. It doesn't seem to matter who is in power in a state, because it is still the state most importantly that is the actor, not the party. Furthermore states are inclined to act rationally so as long as Hamas pursues rational policies as the head of state, then the issue is moot. But there remains one way in which this election could be of interest to a realist. That is how Hamas affects the relative military power of Palestine. Hamas is a known terrorist group, and thus far the conflict with Israel has been rooted in guerrilla warfare. With a more militant group as the official governmental power, they may pursue a more state-centered method of warfare, such as attempting to form an army made of its militants, as they have suggested already.

A Palestinian Army would significantly affect the power structure which exists in the region. The results of this power shift would be of great interest to a realist. It'll be interesting to see the Israeli response to this, since technically Israel retains military authority over Palestinian territory.



I have to agree with Jon, I also don't see why realists would care about the election in Palestine. Any claims Hamas has about being an Islamic party would appear to a realist as some kind of cover. The intrests of the state would remain essentially the same, regardless of who is in charge (ie Power Power Power). Realists would probably not expect Hamas to do anything too crazy, as such actions would predictably diminish the power of the nascent Palestinian state.

We didn't get to discuss the liberal perspective much in class. I think that liberals would either see the victory by Hamas as evidence of the decline of the state or as a strengthening of the state, depending on which aspect of Hamas we choose to focus on.

If we focus on the islamist aspect of Hamas, and its role in a broader pan-islamic movement then we could see its victory as a threat to the idea of a nation state.

At the same time, Hamas won its victory through a democratic process. This gives legitimacy not only to Hamas as the ruling party, but also to the very democratic structures that allowed them to be elected. Such a view would support the idea that Hamas is actually better suited to running the country than the Fatah party.

The second view could well be more accurate, however it also seems to be less significant vis-a-vis IR since it is more concerned with domestic factors.


Reflection: the effect of this election on Palestine

In class, we discussed the elections that unseated the Fatah party in favor of Hamas, and the inevitable or not-so-inevitable changes.

I think it's fair to say that most Palestinians have much more conviction about political events than most Americans do. The average American can't even name his senators, might make it out to vote for the president, and accepts the presidential election results with a day or two of either griping or celebration. Compare that with today's events, when Fatah activists stormed the Hamas leader's compound and made such statements as "We are now no longer part of the ceasefire [against Israel]" and "Whoever will participate in a government with Hamas, we will shoot him in the head."

Will this be resolved peacefully? I doubt that it will be a bloodless conflict, considering the passion on both sides, but I agree with Jonathan that it will find a balance between political differences and the national interest all Palestinians share by nature of being Palestinian. I'm not optimistic enough to say that this will happen soon, however. For the next few months, Palestine will be attempting to find this balance, and there will be dissatisfied citizens on both sides. The intense convictions of both Fatah and Hamas sympathizers will make it hard to reach a compromise anytime soon.

However, I admire the fact that Palestinians have such strong convictions; the American equivalent of this last election would be the Democrats gaining the majority in Congress, unseating the Republicans, and in my opinion, a relatively small percentage of Americans would care or, for that matter, would have voted in the Congressional elections. Few people in my area, for example, would be aware of the change.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Jonathan B. Pontificates 1/26: Hamas and Realism

As I mentioned in class today, I thought that from a realist perspective the election of Hamas was not a very significant event. That is because from a foreign policy perspective, according to realists, nation's have perennial interests that stay the same no matter who is in power.

I used the similar foreign policies of the Czar, the USSR, and Putin's government in regard to its neighbors as an example. In the case of Russia, it is that Russia wants to exert some form of control. Another example is the Cold War consensus in the United States. Whether a democrat or republican was in office the policy of the United States remained the same. Thus, there is ample evidence that nations have perennial interests that do not diverge.

In the case of Palestine, it is clear that although competing factions, like Hamas and Fatah, might diverge domestically, in the foreign policy front, especially in regard to Israel, they have very similar interests. For example, during the past decade and a half Fatah and Hamas have been able to agree to control the level of violence in Israel. The violence was turned on during the two intifadahs's. Even before the election Hamas and Fatah were able to agree to a ceasefire. Why? Because the two factions' interests coalesced and made them have the same interests when it came to Israel. Am I saying that domestic forces are not a factor in foreign policy? Maybe. Although it is not a position that I am enthused with.

Personally, I think that the constructivists do a better job answering that question than the realists. Domestic forces are important but I believe that all of the Palestinians have very similar interests by nature of being Palestinians. Anyone who has the identity of being a Palestinian share certain traits or ideas with other people who identify themselves as Palestinians. In this way, even people on different sides of the ideological spectrum can agree on certain policies, especially in the relm of foreign policy where issues tend to effect the nation as a whole.


2.1 & 3.1: Liberalism and realism (Kat)

On the second day of class, the professor noted that by using the term "realism," realists are implying that theirs is not a particular subset of IR theories, but a way of looking at the facts; in other words, the connotation of the word "realism" is "looking at things realistically." Sterling-Folker notes that realists have a "pessimistic conviction that there are severe limitations on human reason and its ability to achieve the progressive, liberal goals that most of us take for granted as moral truths" (13). In contrast, as Sterling-Folker observes, liberals (or liberalists, in this context?) define themselves by "a faith in at least the possibility of cumulative progress in human affairs" (55) and "a belief in the human capacity to reason [and] the possibility of uncovering untainted universal truth" (55). Here we have the idea of progressing beyond what exists now; the underlying idea seems to be that liberalism is a philosophy that seeks a better future than the present.

In other words, if realism can be, for the moment, reduced to thinking realistically, liberalism can be reduced to active optimism. This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but is useful for understanding the basic tenets of the philosophies and why they diverge.

Consider the possible realist and liberal reactions to a hypothetical warlord who is systematically slaughtering the weaker citizens of his country. A liberal, who is optimistic and believes in the possibility of progress, would look at this crisis and see a moral truth -- some form of aid, military or otherwise, must be given; these people must be helped. The underlying assumption, which as Sterling-Folker observes is somewhat built into the theory, is that progress is possible, and that these people can be saved. The liberal can therefore turn his attention to how to go about it.

This idea that progress is possible is not a natural assumption for the realist, whose belief in the "might makes right" principle will lead him to a more realistic question: "Do I have the necessary might to accomplish this goal?" and "Is it in my self-interest to intervene?" Unlike the liberal, the realist will not take the idea that something should be done as a guarantee that something can be done. This is a completely different line of thought; the realist is amoral and self-interested, while the liberal is concerned with moral imperatives.

--first impressions after reading the assignment


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I have a number of issues with the Moravcsik reading. First, I would like to point out a conflict between Moracvsik's claim that
"The fundamental actors in international politics are individuals and private groups.."(pg 516)
and the claim in MSIRT of
"[liberalism's] focus on the nation state as the central actor in contemporary world politics." (pg 55)
I am personally sympathetic to the view, described in MSRIT as "pluralism" that the state is the fundamental actor, but it is under threat from different groups, as this allows both state and non-state actors to have a role in international politics.

Second, I think that Moravcsik's second claim about liberalism (that states represent a domestic subset) is essentially meaningless, as Moravcsik allows the subset to be as small as an individual dictator or as large as the entire population of the country. If we were to imagine a small country run by a monarch who is completely dependent on the support of a foreign oil company, it is misleading to say that the state's actions reflect the interest of the domestic subgroup that consists of the monarch, and not to say that the state's actions reflect the interest of the foreigners.

I have a similar problem with Moravcsik's third claim, because again it sees conflict between states as essentially a conflict between dominant domestic groups in the two countries. Its not clear to me what makes a domestic group a dominant one, or where transnational organizations fit into the picture.It seems to me that, especially in a democracy, even a marginal group could have an impact on a states behavior. What if a green party comes to power in a coalition government and alters the international position of a country to favor environmental regulations? Are they now considered a dominant group because they have this influence, perhaps beyond what they reasonably should have? It's not clear to me.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Chicken and the Egg; Moravcsik's Article by Jonathan Berman

"Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics" by Andrew Moravcisk is an attempt by Moravcisk to make liberalism a worthy method of inquiry. He attempts to remove the normative mess that is often confounded with liberalism to highlight the parts of the theory that make it useful to IR scholars. According to Moravcisk, liberalism has three basic assumptions. They are 1) the primacy of actors in society 2) states always represent a subset of domestic society and their actions reflect their interests, and 3) the configuration of independent states in the international system determines state behavior (517-20).

Liberalism is able to differentiate itself from realism and institutionalism because it believes that the preferences of a state determine its behavior rather than its material capabilities relative to other states in the international system (527). He then goes on to divide liberalism into subsets that revolve around three general categories that are interested in exploring different areas of interest. First, he denotes ideational liberalism which studies social preferences. Next, is commercial liberalism which focuses on international trade and how states react to it. Finally, there is republican liberalism which looks at how domestic institutions represent subsets of society (524).

In the end, Moravcisk believes that liberalism needs to be employed first, among other IR theories, because assumptions such as the states is a unitary and rational actor depend upon taking account of things such as the role of influential groups of society and those groups and individuals that actually help to make and influence a states' foreign policy (542).

I agree with Moravcisk that IR scholars need to take into account domestic and transational sources of influence upon the state. It simply is a denial of reality to say that domestic and global factors are of no importance. For example, the role of business in shaping government policy is an easy way of seeing how subsets of society can take control of certain aspects of a state's foreign policy. In addition, as power shifts from one competing group to another, such as labor and business, it is easy to see how states' preferences can change and even be at times contradictory. Thus, for realists and institutionalists to casually brush these things aside is very disconcerting and lead to a very wrong idea of the true nature of international relations.

That being said, in my opinion, that doesn't mean that liberalism gets to be theory numero uno. I was not very convinced by his criticism of constructivism. I would even be tempted to counter Moravcsik by saying that I think contructivism trumps realism and liberalism and should enjoy "analytical priority" (542). Moravcsik says that liberal theory trumps contructivism because it demonstrates how high rates of communication and interaction alter state behavior and explain cooperation between states. This leads Moravcsik to advocate the research agenda of Thomas Risse-Kappen which is a "liberal constructivist" in its approach (540).

I don't have a problem with anyone working Thomas Risse-Kappen's program. In fact, I think that realism, institutionalism, and liberalism fit nicely into constructivism and anyone can take those three approaches and still be in the constructivist framework. What I disagree with though is that in order for communication to occur, and by communication I mean more than talk, I include non-verbal language, and even the message that certain actions may deliver to another party, it needs to be interepreted. That is where I believe constructivism trumps liberalism in the analytical priority list. Every individual in society needs to determine where they stand in it (sometimes its determined for them). States need to do the same thing, just think about the differences between rogue states and peace-loving states.

Moravcsik would have us believe that preferences are the most important factor in IR. However, preferences cannot be created until a person or state ascribes themselves an identity. People and states cannot answer the question "what do I want?" until they answer the question "who am I?" Moravcsik whole purpose is writing his article is to seperate liberalism from realism and institutionalism. He is trying to show that states' preferences actually defer whereas the other two believe all states have the same ends, namely wealth, sovereignty, and power. But states' preferences differ only because their identities are different, if they did not then they would all want the same things.

Looking at some real world examples we see that identity is the first factor that needs to be taken into account when asking what states want. How much is France's foreign policy shaped by its identity as being 'French'? What does it mean to be French and how exactly does one become French? The recent riots in France highlight the differences in French society and who is actually considered French. Moravcsik would point to competition between Arabs and the native French and how the native French have won control of the government, however, asking how these people become French and how this people can't seem to become French probably tells you more than just this group won out in the French society tug-'o'-war.

In the end, I agree with many of liberalism's assumptions, however, I don't think it is the be all, end all. Constructivism is more than just studying 'feedback' (539). It asks how people attribute meaning to things encountered in society and explores the creation of identity and the other. All of the things Moravcsik talks about, groups fighting one another for control, the effects of internal and external social cultures on others cannot occur until people give themselves and others identities and attribute meaning to the social world. Thus, although I'm nitpicking about what comes first, the chicken or the egg, in this case I think it is constructivism.


Andrew Moravcsik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics,” International Organization 51 (1997), pp. 513-553.


Monday, January 23, 2006

Thucydides in the News

I was reading the news online and Thucydides got a mention. Apparently, reports that the plague that wiped out a third of Athens and changed the balance of power during the Peloponnesian War was typhoid fever. The identity of the plague had been a mystery given Thucydides' unclear description which left a number of possible candidates.

Using DNA from teeth found from an ancient burial pit scientists were able to trace the cause of death to the disease. Apparently, the plague started in Ethiopia and worked its up towards Athens between 430-426 BCE.

The article was pretty interesting although I don't think the disease is the only reason Athens lost. Had they not embarked on that disastrous campaign against Syracuse, where they lost their entire invasion force and a good portion of their fleet, Athens probably could have held out.

Here's the link to the article: Typhoid Fever Behind Fall of Athens


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Nate's Response to the Readings

Having only taken one IR theory course, I cannot say that I have heard all of these arguments before and read all of the experts on the subjects, like Waltz or Keohane. However, I feel like for this reading, that is unnecessary. I actually enjoyed the simplicity of Sterling-Folker. She does an excellent job of boiling away all of the superfluous material and focuses in on the core knowledge, which each reader needs to hold before diving into the material. However, after reading 2.1 and 3.1, yes I did read Grieco but I don't feel like discussing it presently, I was struck with a strange feeling. I felt like Sterling-Folker had actually disproved one of her basic arguments about liberalism.

In 3.1 from pp. 55-56, she claims that liberalism has unfairly been characterized as "idealism". But by the end of the article, she had me even more convinced of it. I understand that liberalism has many facets and that one word cannot describe all of them, but one theme was woven through her articles on realism and liberalism. The theme was simple; realism is pessimistic and based on a negative view of mankind's ability to reason and cooperate in order to furhter the "liberal goals that most of us take for granted"(13). Liberlism is based on "a belief in the human capacity to reason, and with that reason, the possibility of uncovering untainted universal truth" (Enloe 1996; 187, taken from Sterling-Folker, 55). These two simple definitions can be boiled down even one step further; realism = power is the only universal truth and it is the cause of conflict, liberalism = many universal truths exist and must be identified in order to help mankind.

It seems absurd really that two great and controversial theoris can be boiled down so quickly and thoroughly, but yet these are the thoughts which popped up over and over again as I read the articles. By accepting these basic definitions I was able to explain the rest of the attributes of each theory. Why does realism emphasize states? Because the greatest power is a state, therefore it is the greatest truth on which to form a basis for theory. Will the essentials of realism, power and conflict, truly be affected if the greatest power becomes a corporation? In my mind no. Some minor adjustments would be made, a new strand of realism would emerge and the theory would continue. A question for liberalism could be: what spurs its assumption that information and communication will play an essential role in unlocking the key to overcoming barriers of cooperation? Well, using the definition, information and cooperation are an emerging field with less available research, as opposed to war or some economic theories or whatever, and so by researching in this field, universal truths will be uncovered.

And that is what I got out of the readings. From 6 or so pages, one strand of thought emerged in each reading, the concept that realism seems just as pessimistic as all of its attackers say, and liberalism seems just as idealistic as its attackers say.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Jonathan B. Reacts to Sterling-Folker 2.1, 3.1, and the Grieco Article

The readings for 1/24 were a basic recap of the first two weeks of every introductory IR course that I have taken at American. I have probably received some sort of chart in the past four years that neatly goes over the basic assumptions of each theory and if I ever stumble across it I should probably paste it to my wall for easy reference.

Nothing in Sterling-Folker chapters and the Grieco article, is anything that I haven't encountered before.

I take issue with the focus of liberalism and realism on the state as the most important actor in international relations. States play an important role for sure but the growth of MNE's and NGO's show that other actors are having an effect on the international system. If these other actors did not matter how come some NGO's now have observer status at the UN? How can some corporations bully countries into giving them incentives for keeping their factories in the country? Why do some private security companies have larger armies than many states in Africa? It is clear that power is no longer just the states' domain. Maybe the IMF/World Bank protests haven't changed their policy approaches but the growth of protests have ensured that they maintain strong public relations departments. Thus, in the last half a century we have seen the growth of the individual as a powerful actor on the international stage.

Realists tend to imagine states as independent actors while liberals believe that states, along with individuals, NGO's, MNE's, and IO's, are all important actors and can affect the international system. Thus, the argument between the two philosophies is whether these actors can alter state behavior. Realists say no, liberals say yes.

I tend to agree more with the liberals than the realists. I think realists miss many of the institutions that exist in international relations. Institutions are not just buildings in Geneva, Switzerland. I like the definition of an institution that Alexander Wendt provides. He says that an institution is "a relatively stable set or 'structure' of identities and interests" that does not "exist apart from actors' ideas about how the world works" (Wendt 399). An institution can be something like the UN but an institution can also be an intangible concept like sovereignty, diplomacy, or a bilateral relationship between two states. In either case, an institution creates rules and norms that inform actors participating in institutions about what is expected of them and others, as well as the consequences of noncompliance (Narine).

What this means is that even in a state of hostilities, like between the US and the USSR during the Cold War, there is a manner in which each state expects the other to act. Just think about the way "mutually assured destruction" became an institution. Each side knew that if they launched nuclear weapons the other would do the same, ensuring MAD. As long as each side obeyed the mutually agreed upon rules the world avoided nuclear winter. My point is that no matter what the relationship states have with each other there is always some sort of institution monitoring their behavior. Thus, states cannot escape institutions, they are inexorabely caught in institutions, even with their most hated enemies.


Grieco, Joseph. “Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism,” International Organization 42 (1988), pp. 485-508.

Narine, Shaun. "Economics and Security in the Asia Pacific: A Constructivist Analysis." International Studies Association. 41st Annual Convention 14-18 March 2000.

Sterling-Folker, chapters 2.1, and 3.1; courtesy of PTJ

Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization Vol. 46, No. 2 (Spring, 1992): 391-425.

---. “Constructing International Politics.” International Security Vol 20, No. 1 (Summer, 1995): 71-81.